I have now listened to all seven hours of S-Town Podcast and here are my thoughts:
1. If you are a podcaster, a radio maker, or an audio drama producer, you really need to listen to this. This is a gripping and endlessly fascinating portrait that is a game-changer for radio journalism in its depth and nimble wrangling of disparate story threads. The series not only atones for Serial‘s shaky second season, but somehow manages to top that justifiably famous podcast’s gripping first season, which is no small accomplishment.
2. It has one of the best first plot points I have ever heard on radio, which occurs at the end of Episode 2. I don’t want to spoil the twist, but let’s just say that the surprise not only causes us to become even more invested in the story, but consummates an exquisite tonal shift. We are led to believe that we are listening to journalism, but it turns out that this massive series is more akin to a Ron Chernow biography, with supreme attention to the specific psychological details that cause one person — in this case, the brilliant and remarkable geometric maverick John B. McLemore — to live a specific life.
3. The series is smart enough to both present a panoramic portrait of its main character and to leave certain questions oblique and unanswered. In doing so, the contradictions inherent in McLemore transmute into something even more poignant, more representative of a chasm in current American relations between urbanites and small town residents, between North and South, and between the dark and the light. It’s there in the way Brian Reed, our seemingly knowing guide, confesses what he doesn’t know and mispronounces “palaver.” It’s there in his fear and his uncertainty.
4. Uncle Jimmy and the tattoo parlor early in the series: Jesus, this is stunning “you are there” reporting. Usually such atmospheric details are buried because a radio show of this type becomes more about the journalist puffing up his own ego and wanting to land streetcred (or a self-congratulatory appearance on the Longform Podcast). Brian Reed, however, somehow manages to be both thorough in his investigation, yet not always knowledgeable or certain about what he’s getting into. I’m sure that much of this tone has to do with the expert editing contributions of Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig, but I hope this tactic becomes more prominently practiced! Podcasters, you have the technology! Go out into the field! Take risks! Dare to be vulnerable! Don’t get comfortable with your armchair Skype recordings. Stop hiding behind your “I’m a badass journalist” narration and be humble! Confess what you do not know! Be active!
5. If I have any criticisms, it is probably with Episode 5. The series loses its way a bit with Rita, straying from its concise focus on McLemore by conveying information that could have been communicated in half the time. Plus, we never quite get the full story of Tyler, the adopted young man who McLemore took under his wing. But this minor flaw is more than atoned for by the surprising personal revelations in Episode 6, in which “grief manual” takes on an unanticipated meaning.
6. In many ways, this series is a celebration of autodidacts. But it’s also one of those portraits that actually has you wanting to feel more compassionate and more present with misfits, outsiders, and those seemingly brilliant people that all of us seem to think we know, but we really don’t.
7. I love the clockmaker subculture and all the horologists in far-off corners of the world. Biographies often become too steeped in one subject, but McLemore’s influence upon others is a vital part of his story. Reed and company get huge props from me for expertly balancing the presentation of a man’s life with the “fingers pointing back” from his peers.
8. The series’s final half hour is harrowing and emotional stuff. It hits you like a locomotive. And you’ll know it when it happens. It is such a perfectly crafted moment. You feel this incredible emotional wave slam into you where you realize, “Oh my god! Oh no! That’s his real life! That’s his pain.” S-Towngoes there in ways that I didn’t think possible from the This American Life crew. So kudos to them for amping it up. It’s inspiring to see all these radio veterans show us that they still have a few new tricks up their sleeve.
If you have seven hours, get on S-Town soon. You’re going to want to listen to this before the clickbait media merchants bombard us with their insipid and needless contrarian “S-Town is overrated” hot takes. Do not listen to them! This is great, highly compelling radio. And it has very much inspired me to do better work as an audio drama producer.
Daisey’s tale, which was an excerpt from his one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, had helped to shape many people’s feelings about Apple. Apple had relied upon its supplier, Foxonn, to manufacture its line of iPhones and iPads. And while an independent investigation from The New York Times earlier this year also revealed unsafe working conditions at Foxconn, there remain significant doubts over whether much of what Daisey has stated on stage and on air is true.
“As best as we can tell,” said host Ira Glass on the new episode of This American Life, “Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first-hand.” Glass went on to say that he had taken Daisey at his word and that he saw no reason to doubt Daisey. “I can now say in retrospect that when Mike Daisey wouldn’t give us contact information for his interpreter, we should’ve killed the story rather than run it. We never should’ve broadcast this story without talking to that woman.”
Rob Schmitz, a Marketplace correspondent in Shanghai, was able to track down “Cathy” — Daisey’s interpreter for the piece, whose real name is Li Guifen but who also goes by the name Cathy Lee — by putting the terms “Cathy,” “translator,” and “Shenzhen” into Google. He called the first phone number that came up. Cathy Lee did not know that Daisey had used her in his show. She thought that Daisey was merely an American writer.
Hers is a list of Daisey’s lies uncovered on the program:
Daisey claimed that the Foxconn guards at the gates had guns. Schmitz said that, in all of his years of reporting, he had never seen guards with guns. “The only people allowed to have guns in China are the military and the police, not factory guards.” This was corroborated by Cathy Lee, who told This American Life that she had never seen a gun in person.
Daisey claimed that he met with workers “at coffeehouses and different Starbucks in Guangzhou.” Schmitz pointed out that it was unlikely that factory workers who made fifteen to twenty dollars a day would sip coffee at Starbucks. Because Starbucks is pricier in China than in the United States.
Daisey claimed that he talked to hundreds of workers. Cathy Lee said that it was 50 workers on the outside.
Daisey claimed that he posed as a businessman to get inside Foxconn’s factories. In fact, Daisey’s appointments were all set up in advance.
Daisey claimed that he visited ten factories Cathy Lee told This American Life it was only three.
While Apple’s own audits have revealed some underage workers (a total of 91 workers among hundreds of thousands in 2010), Cathy Lee revealed that Daisey had not met any underage workers during his trip. “Maybe we met a girl who looked like she was thirteen years old, like that one. She looks really young,” said Cathy Lee. “I think if she said she was thirteen or twelve, then I would be surprised. I would be very surprised. And I would remember for sure. But there is no such thing.” In the ten years that Cathy Lee has visited factories in Shenzhen, she’s hardly seen any underage workers.
Daisey claimed to meet twenty-five to thirty workers from an unauthorized union in an all-day meeting. The meeting did happen. But it was two to three workers, and the meeting was only for a few hours, over lunch at a restaurant.
Cathy Lee has doubts about the government-issued blacklist of people who the companies weren’t allowed to hire. While she remembers the blacklist, she says that it didn’t have an official government stamp, which any government-issued document would have.
Daisey claimed that he encountered people who had been poisoned by n-hexane, with their hands shaking uncontrollably. But Cathy Lee told Rob Schmitz that she and Daisey hadn’t met anybody poisoned by hexane. The story came from news in 2010, but the hexane poisoning occurred in a Wintek family in Suzhou, nearly a thousand miles away from Shenzhen.
Daisey describes an old man who got his hand twisted in a metal press and who has never seen an iPad turned on. In Daisey’s monologue, the old man says, “It’s a kind of magic,” when the iPad’s screen is turned on. Cathy Lee said that this never happened. “It’s just like a movie scenery,” she said on the program. She did say she remembered the guy, but that he never worked at Foxconn.
The taxi ride on the exit ramp that ended in thin air 85 feet from the ground? Cathy Lee said that it did not happen.
Cathy Lee said that she and Daisey never saw any factory dorm rooms.
Daisey claimed that it would not work if he talked with Foxcon workers at the gate. But Cathy Lee has been taking workers to the factory gates for years.
In the fact-checking process, Daisey repeatedly lied to Glass and Schmitz. He initially told Glass that he met with 25 to 30 illegal union workers. When pressed by Glass and Schmitz, he knocked the number down to ten. Cathy Lee said it was really between two and five.
“Why would Cathy say that you did not meet any underage workers?” asked Schmitz on the program.
“I don’t know,” replied Daisey. “I do know that when doing interviews a lot of people were speaking in English. They enjoyed using English with me and I don’t know if she was paying attention at that particular point.”
When pressed further by Schmitz, Daisey claimed to have “a clear recollection of meeting somebody who was thirteen years old” and with another worker who was twelve years old.
“But none of them said they were twelve, right?” countered Glass. “The others didn’t actually give their ages and you’re just kind of guessing.”
When confronted about the invented hexane workers on the program, Daisey could not actually confess that he lied.
“I wouldn’t express it that way,” said Daisey.
“How would you express it?” asked Schmitz.
“I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip. So when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening that everyone had been talking about,” replied Daisey.
“So you didn’t meet any worker who’d been poisoned by hexane?” asked Glass.
“That’s correct,” replied Daisey.
* * *
Daisey told The New York Times in 2006 that he “once fabricated a story because it ‘connected’ with the audience.” That same year, Daisey performed a one-man show called Truth: The Heart is a Million Little Pieces Above All Things, which used James Frey and JT Leroy as inspiration. As Variety wrote at the time, “Daisey comes to a judgment that is strict but sympathetic; he suggests that if people are often the least reliable narrators of their own lives, they are also sometimes the most engaging.”
When I contacted theater companies on Friday afternoon, it was evident that they were more taken with the “engaging” nature of Daisey’s show rather than its veracity. DJ from New York’s The Public Theater informed me that the three remaining performances of Daisey’s show scheduled on Saturday and Sunday were still on. There were no plans to cancel.
But what of theatergoers who might have believed that Daisey’s story is real and who booked tickets in advance of these allegations?
“We don’t offer refunds,” said DJ.
Burlington’s Flynn Center will not be canceling Daisey’s March 31st show. The spokesperson and I have been playing telephone tag. [SEE 3/19/12 UPDATE BELOW FOR ADDITIONAL FLYNN CENTER DETAILS.]
When I contacted Emily Weiner at the D-Crit Conference, where Daisey is scheduled to speak on May 2nd, I was apparently the first person to inform Ms. Weiner of the news. There was nobody available to issue an official statement.
I was also the first to inform a very friendly woman at the Emmett Robinson Theater of Daisey’s fabrications. I left a message with Jesse Bagley, the chief contact person at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, where Daisey is scheduled to perform from May 31st to June 6th.
The best response I was able to get was from Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager and designated spokesperson for the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. Daisey is scheduled to perform at the Washington, DC theater from June 17th to August 5th. After getting Miller on the phone, I was told that there would be no refunds or cancellations. When I pressed Miller further on what circumstances might cause the theater to issue refunds or cancel, I was simply told that the show was “constantly changing.”
Woolly Mammoth even expressed pride in Daisey’s work. In an official statement sent to me via email, Miller called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs “a daring work of theatre that opened people’s eyes to some of the real working conditions in Chinese factories where high-tech products are manufactured–conditions which have been documented by subsequent journalistic accounts in The New York Times and other sources. It’s a core value of Woolly to present works that spark conversation around topics of socio-political importance, and we’re pleased to have played a part in bringing these issues to national attention. We look forward to welcoming Mike back for an encore performance of the show this summer.”
3/17/2012 1:00 PM UPDATE: The Public Theater has released this statement (PDF) in response to Mike Daisey:
In the theater, our job is to create fictions that reveal truth — that’s what a storyteller does, that’s what a dramatist does. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs reveals, as Mike’s other monologues have, human truths in story form.
In this work, Mike uses a story to frame and lead debate about an important issue in a deeply compelling way. He has illuminated how our actions affect people half-a-world away and, in doing so, has spurred action to address a troubling situation. This is a powerful work of art and exactly the kind of storytelling that The Public Theater has supported, and will continue to support in the future.
Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.
3/17/2012 7:30 PM UPDATE:Out of Focus‘s Aaron Dobbs was at this afternoon’s 2:00 PM performance of Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and reported the following on Twitter:
The Associated Press’s Mark Kennedy also confirms that Daisey has added a new section at the beginning in which he addresses questions raised by critics. According to Kennedy’s report, Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis said that Daisey “eliminated anything he doesn’t feel he can stand behind.” Eustis called the prologue “the best possible frame we could give the audience for the controversy.”
Good afternoon. I wanted to take a second before we do the show. Because I wanted to let you know that This American Life is airing an episode this weekend that calls into question the veracity of some of the personal experiences that you’re going to hear about in this monologue. And I want you to understand that what’s being called into question is the personal experiences. The facts of what the situation is in China in manufacturing are undisputed. And they’re reinforced by The New York Times, CNN, NPR, all these organizations have gone and done the hard journalism that’s necessary. When you leave here, if you feel interested, I’d really urge you to go out and read about those things. But I wanted to let you know that I stand behind this work. And the work you’re going to see today has had changes made to it. So that we can stand behind it completely. And, uh, includes this controversy in it, so that you can have a full picture and you can do what you want with it. Because I believe that as an audience that’s your role — is to determine how you feel about the art you take in. You will make those determinations for yourselves. When the lights go down here, I will go backstage. When I come back out, the lights will come up on the stage and I will be telling you a story. And that’s the oldest form of theater, you know. When the light comes on to the stage, I assume that role where I am speaking. We use these tools that the Greeks invented so long ago to try and communicate. The whole attempt is to try to shine a light through something and get at the truth. The truth is vitally important. I believe that very deeply. And I, uh, have come here today to set this up. Because I think context is utterly important. And so some of you are like, “Ah yeah.” Some of you are like, “I have no idea what any of this is about.” (audience laughter) But thankfully because we live in such a wired and connected world, I would ask that you not look up the controversy on the Internet while the show is actually going. (audience laughter) Small…just a small request. There’ll be time enough after it’s over. (audience laughter) Um….I’d like to thank you all so much for coming. And I do hope you have a great show. Thanks. (audience applause)
3/18/12 11:00 PM UPDATE: CNET’s Greg Sandoval collected audience reactions from Daisey’s remaining shows at the Public Theater. In his first filed story on March 18th, Sandoval describes professor Alan Zimmerman complaining last night to the theater about Daisey’s lack of credibility. “He misled the audience about what occurred,” said Zimmerman. “I’m disappointed.” In Sandoval’s second story (only just filed), he reports that Daisey’s last performance at the Public Theater received a standing ovation. “It was a great performance,” said one audience member. “He really makes you think.”
3/19/12 12:00 PM UPDATE: This morning, I spoke by telephone with John Killacky, executive director of the Flynn Center, who was very gracious with his time. He informed me, as previously reported, that the Flynn Center is going ahead with the March 31st performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Killacky was sufficiently satisfied with the added prologue and the minor changes in the script, and had been in touch with Daisey’s agent and publicist over the weekend.
“The fascinating part of it,” said Killacky, “is that both Ira Glass and reporters from Marketplace are saying the facts are correct. And what’s wrong with it is that it’s not first person.”
Killacky felt that the show would still remain compelling for audiences, telling me that one of theater’s essential roles is “to promote dialogue.” To this end, Killacky tells me that he may work in a post-show dialogue with Daisey on stage. He also said that, unlike the other theaters I talked with, he planned to issue refunds for anybody who felt taken in by Daisey’s material.
I asked Killacky if he had reviewed the informational sheet that Daisey is handing out to the audience after the show. He said that he hadn’t. I then asked if he had considered offering a secondary sheet of This American Life‘s findings, so that the audience would have enough information to make up their minds. There were no plans as of Monday morning.
“I think what’s important here is that people experience the work itself,” elaborated Killacky. “Did Mike make mistakes? Yes. He admitted and then he apologized, I thought. I’m not sure that invalidates him as an artist. In fact, it doesn’t invalidate him as an artist.”
3/19/12 12:30 PM UPDATE: Gawker’s Adrian Chen was also taken in by Mike Daisey last year — after he began doing some fact-checking on Agony. He relates that he met with Daisey, “as intense in person as he is onstage, though more piercing than the loony American Abroad persona he’s cultivated for The Agony and the Ecstasy,” and he confesses to being duped by his charisma:
Throughout our interview, he’d been so convincing; his lies were so detailed and full of compassion and humor. And now I wondered why I was wasting my time trying to poke holes in his facts when I should be writing about the awful things he saw. We talked for a bit more and he invited me to his show. I went, and dropped the story.
3/19/12 6:30 PM UPDATE: Alli Houseworth, former marketing and communications director at Wooly Mammoth, has an interesting post up at New Beans, in which she has called on audiences to boycott the show: “He insisted that ‘This is a work of non-fiction’ be printed in playbills. This was to be a work of activist theatre. Staff at Woolly handed out sheets of paper to every audience member that left our theatres, per Mike’s insistence, that urged them to take action on this matter. (I and other staffers would get nasty emails from him the next day if even one audience member slipped by without collecting this call to action.)”
Ben Tanzer: “But how does one get a piece on the show? Or even meet Ira Glass who I understand rests in a cryogenically sealed chamber between shows? I imagine one could lurk outside the studio or Ira’s home, though again please note that I am not a stalker, and that the charges to that effect filed by NPR’s legal office here in Chicago did not stick. One could also submit their work, which I have done, but how well does one’s actual work reflect their wit, timing, and ability to move the public to tears, joy, and maybe even arousal in the space of one sentence? Not well my friend, not my work anyway.” (via Pete Anderson)